University of Minnesota
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Four Minutes of Fame

I had my four minutes of fame yesterday, which means, if Andy Warhol is correct, that I have another 11 minutes coming to me. Maybe so.

The four minutes I had yesterday was a segmenton KARE 11 News Saturday, a show that airs early Saturday morning (instead of cartoons, I suppose) that offers weather, news headlines, and brief chats with people who have somehow found a way to come to their attention. In my case, I was there because the University of Minnesota Press is promoting the newly-released book The City, the River, the Bridge, about the collapse of the I-35W bridge in 2007, which I had the pleasure and honor of editing.

It will surprise none of you that I overprepared for yesterday’s appearance. The four minutes went by extremely quickly, as Eric Perkins and I had a nice chat about the book, the bridge collapse, and what might be learned from the disaster and its aftermath.

Just so all that preparation doesn’t go to waste, here’s what I would have said if there had been time on the television show. I tried to anticipate what I would be asked and to think of what I would say, so I wouldn’t have that “deer in the headlights” thing going on during live TV. Not that anyone would be watching at 8:20 on Saturday morning in January.

How did the book come about in the first place? The bridge collapse happened at the “front door” of the University, just off the East Bank campus. Some of our students and staff who live in the area were among the first on the scene. Many of us feel that part of the public role of the University is to think “beyond the headlines,” taking a broader approach to public issues than the news, business, and political cycles allow. And we have a responsibility to communicate those ideas to the public. So, during the semester after the collapse, I helped organize a series of public lectures on subjects related to the bridge, the river, and the city, and that series was followed up a year later by a day-long symposium. The symposium talks were then edited for publication in this book.

Who was involved in this effort? The River Life Partnership is a collaborative effort to connect the teaching, research, and programs of the University to people working on river sustainability. We’re a world-class university on one of the great rivers of the world, located in a National Park, and it is the job of our program to take strategic, long term advantage of that fact. The lectures, symposium and book were likewise collaborative, bringing together expertise and resources from across the University, but led by the Institute for Advanced Study, the Institute on the Environment, the Provost’s Office, the Urban Studies Program, and the University of Minnesota Press.

What have we learned from the bridge collapse and the aftermath? I think there are four lessons.

First, we solved the short term crisis well, building a new, elegant, strong bridge in record time. But we still haven’t addressed, really, long term issues of how we treat the river itself, including the uncomfortable fact that what we put in the water upstream, whether from farms or cities, poisons the river and the Gulf of Mexico downstream.

Second, the term “fracture critical,” which refers to a construction and engineering approach on the old bridge whereby the failure of one key component caused the whole structure to collapse, may help us understand our vulnerabilities in other areas. Systems that are built without redundancy, or backup capacity, are especially vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Tom Fisher, the Dean at the College of Design, made this point during the 2008 symposium, which took place during a week that the economy was in free fall. A “fracture critical” economy, with illusions of wealth built on subprime mortgages, or a fracture critical climate, with much of what we depend on to live being held up by unsustainable use of energy and carbon, should get our attention.

Third, planning decisions have long term consequences. The old I-35W bridge carried 140,000 vehicles a day on a transportation system oriented to easing the carrying of goods and people from the farthest reaches of a regional metropolis. But that spread-out system, with the inefficiencies of time, land use, energy, and the like, was not accidental, or an “unintended consequence” of early decisions. Likewise (and this is an insight from one of the lectures, not the book) we enjoy an unsurpassed park system in the Twin Cities because of decisions and investments made generations ago.

Generations from now, what will our children and grandchildren have to say about the investments we make or fail to make now?

Finally, I would suggest that “if we take care of the river, it will be able to take care of us.” We still don’t reallyact as if the Mississippi River is central to our cities, although we’re doing better now than we ever have. If we can somehow devise a “river-centric” pattern of design, planning, policy, engineering, education, and economics, the river will pay us back manifold. In addition to providing clean water, urban cooling effects, and pleasant places to live, all of which are “ecosystem services” that we really don’t know how to value, the river can become the green engine of the Twin Cities’ 21st century economy. Lots of people are working on this, and they should be encouraged.

I guess I was idealistic to think I would get to say all of this on a short TV spot on a Saturday morning. But I invite your comments now, as part of our ongoing discussion.

And please buy, and read, the book–it contributes to these debates as well.

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One Comment

  1. Mark GormanJanuary 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    It’s nice that you’re rationing your 15 minutes wisely!

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